This past weekend Tim took care of the chickens while Jessica and I took a trip to visit my in-laws in Missouri. Going to a new place is always refreshing, not because of the escape, but because of what one can learn and bring back. Near the area where Jessica's parents live, there is a healthy community of "horse and buggy" Amish. They have several small farms, small food stores, repair shops, and a jam and bakery operation. Jessica's parents buy their milk from the Amish as well as their chickens and many of their other staples.
What struck me about this community is how perfectly situated it is for whatever might come. No matter what happens, they do what they have always done—live simply, work hard, save money, worship, and participate in each others lives. And as many of us turn away from the oil dependent way of life, the Amish will increasingly be our teachers. Their small farming communities will serve for us the same function that monasteries did during the Dark Ages—they will be places where civil life is encouraged and preserved against the decaying ways of life around us.
Because the Amish are present in this small Missouri community, locally raised, free-range chicken is widely available; fresh milk from Jersey cows can be purchased straight from the farm; and most importantly, knowledge of how to live without oil or electricity is preserved. There is a sufficiency, not a self-sufficiency (for that wouldn't really fit with the Amish model), but a local and communal sufficiency. In the local community, most of the resources for living a good life are supplied, used, and shared. This local sufficiency was once widely present in farming communities just two generations ago.
My grandparents grew up in fairly locally sufficient places that, although they might have been challenged by hard times, still had the resources to provide for their basic needs without any great trouble. They knew how to hunt, fish, grow a garden, forage for wild foods in season, kill and clean a chicken, and how to let nothing go to waste. But the percentage of the American population that now possesses these basic skills is small. A few years ago I wouldn't have known how to do anything from the aforementioned list. But through learning from those few who have held onto these traditions, Amish and otherwise, I have begun to learn the necessary arts of local sufficiency.
There are many others learning as well. The DIY and and grow-your-own movement is upon us. Every time I butcher chickens, I have several friends who want to help, who want to learn how to do something that almost everyone around here knew years ago.
I am convinced that the future will hold an openness to a wider variety of teachers. There will no longer be just professors of art, literature, history, math, and science (all necessary), but students will also increasingly seek out teachers of carpentry, basic mechanics, horticulture, and husbandry. These are the skills we will need for a sustainable way of life. And those who have long practiced the arts of local sufficiency will no longer be marginal oddities, as the Amish are for many. Instead, they will be our necessary, essential, respected, and sought-after guides.
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in July 2008.